“Listen, only night is watching the night nurse,” read Alice Fulton, MFA ’82, Cornell’s Ann S. Bowers Professor of English, from her poem “Still World Nocturne.”
The poem is about the time she spent as a caregiver for her dying mother. As a caregiver, Fulton told an audience gathered in Klarman Hall auditorium April 27, “a lot happens at night.” The poem goes on: “Our mother crying ‘Mother!’ / and asking if the world’s still here,” and “Only night will watch as I, the night nurse, // wake up to a world unhere, unyours.”
The reading was part of “In a Word,” a once-per-semester conversation series sponsored by the Creative Writing Program. Fulton discussed the motivations and characteristics of her poems with Roger Gilbert, professor and chair of the English department, and read from her 2015 book, “Barely Composed.”
Time, love, and death are key themes in “Barely Composed.” In addition to free verse forms, the book includes sonnets and a villanelle. “Still World Nocturne” was the first villanelle Fulton had ever written; she chose the form because its repeating lines enacted the obsessive quality of grief.
Fulton recalled for the audience a funeral she went to in which the funeral home gave death-themed coloring books to children. The coloring book, which told the story of a chipmunk whose sibling had died, included scenes from the wake and funeral for children to color. While this was intended as a kind of grief therapy, Fulton regarded it more likely to traumatize than comfort a child. Her poem “Forcible Touching” rewrites quotes from the ill-conceived coloring book, and includes the line “Even the hospital will die.” Another poem, “Reckoning Frame,” invokes censorship by blacking out strings of words and letters.
While reading “Reckoning Frame,” Fulton projected the redacted poem so the audience could see black boxes of deleted text. She called this poem “a document of dissociation and horror,” composed in a “thwarted, mutilated tongue,” and in a “language forged by secrecy and marked by duress.” Some of the lines from this poem include: “the tongue is ex-ed,” “It is good to have ouching,” “Time does us” and “Keep your Never person laced in the dark.”
Gilbert read some of his favorite one-liners from Fulton’s book, such as “There’s no dress code, / though leg irons // are always appropriate,” “We have a saying: nothing is allowed / but that which is allowed is compulsory.” “The suicide prevention fest was canceled / ‘cause of rain,” and “Do you really think / those shades you wear above your head // will keep the sun out of your mind?”
“Barely Composed” is available at Buffalo Street Books and other booksellers.
Amanda Bosworth, a Cornell doctoral student in history, is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.